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Jerusalem Catholic Patriarch offers to be exchanged for Gaza hostages

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© FILE PHOTO: Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa OFM looks on after being elevated to the rank of cardinal at the Vatican, September 30, 2023. REUTERS/Yara Nardi/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY () – Pope Francis’ representative in the Holy Land said on Monday he was willing to exchange himself for Israeli children taken hostage by Hamas and held in Gaza.

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, made his comment in response to a question during a video conference with journalists in Italy.

“I am ready for an exchange, anything, if this can lead to freedom, to bring the children home. No problem. There is total willingness on my part,” he said.

“The first thing to do is to try to win the release of the hostages, otherwise there will be no way of stopping (an escalation). We are willing to help, even me personally,” he said.

He stressed, however, that he and his office had not yet had any direct contact with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,300 people.

“You can’t talk to Hamas. It is very difficult,” he said.

About 200 people were taken hostage and about a dozen of them are believed to be children.

Pizzaballa oversees Roman Catholic activities in Israel and the Palestinian territories as well as Jordan and Cyprus, a region which is home to an estimated 300,000 Roman Catholics.

Diplomatic efforts have been intensifying to get aid into Gaza as Israel prepares a ground invasion to destroy Hamas.

Authorities in Gaza said at least 2,750 people had so far been killed by the Israeli strikes, a quarter of them children, and nearly 10,000 wounded. Another 1,000 people were missing and believed to be under rubble.

Pizzaballa said that about 1,000 Christians were sheltering in Church buildings in northern Gaza after their homes were destroyed in Israeli strikes.

“They don’t know where to go because moving is dangerous,” he said.

Israel has urged exhausted Gazans to evacuate to the south, which hundreds of thousands have already done in the enclave that is home to more than 2 million people. Hamas, which runs Gaza, has told people to ignore Israel’s message.

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